Wendell Berry will be in Bloomington Nov. 9-11 to read from his work and participate in a discussion with Wes Jackson and Scott Russell Sanders as part of the Patten Lecture series. Berry spoke with Thomas P. Healy from his northern Kentucky farm prior to the November elections.
TPH: You're going to be giving the Patten Lecture in Bloomington, and I wanted to see if you'd given any thought to what you'd be discussing in that lecture.
WB: To tell you the truth, I haven't. There are a number of possibilities, I'm not going to write a lecture, I've already told them that, and I may be reading a piece of fiction. I just don't know.
"In spite of all the damage we've done to it, it's still a good world."
TPH: Given all the problems that are in the world do you still have a grateful heart? Do you still have things that you're thankful for?
WB: Of course. In spite of all the damage we've done to it, it's still a good world. To live in it as long as I have without being imprisoned or persecuted for my publications is something to be grateful for. I've had a good life, and was born to and among people I've admired and loved.
TPH: It's been five years since we last talked, when you were up in Frankfort at Bill Caddell's library.
WB: That was quite a deal. I was impressed by Bill's library.
TPH: Libraries are under fire these days.
WB: Of course they are. Everything worthy is under fire.
TPH: I just had a lengthy conversation with Scott Russell Sanders about this general topic. He talked about how important libraries were for him as a young person to visit and have free, open access to the knowledge of the world; how it opened doors and what it meant to him. That kind of vision is increasingly being called socialist.
"I know that the whole concept of the public is under attack."
WB: Why is it being labeled socialist? Because the public is furnishing it?
TPH: Yes. Why should we allocate taxpayer dollars to libraries, parks and public schools?
WB: I know that the whole concept of the public is under attack.
TPH: Just the notion of the greater good or the commonwealth that Scott writes a lot about. You talk and write about this notion of being in community and what that means on a very fundamental level. It's not something abstract, it's palpable. It's libraries and parks, it's fertile soil, it's clean air, it's potable water. It's a liveliness that comes about from human intentions to gather together and enjoy each other's company and enjoy that company within an environment. That's also a degraded concept.
WB: These things you mentioned are gifts. Whether you're an atheist or a religious person you have to see that they are gifts in the sense in that we couldn't have made them. And they are moreover good gifts to the extent that they've allowed us to live and be healthy -- to the extent that pollution and degradation permit us still to be healthy. But the atmosphere, the earth, the water and the water cycle -- those things are good gifts. The ecosystems, the ecosphere, those are good gifts. We have to regard them as gifts because we couldn't make them. We have to regard them as good gifts because we couldn't live without them. And we are extraordinarily guilty, industrial society as a whole, is guilty of not receiving them as good gifts or respecting them as gifts, but instead degrading and wasting and destroying them. We are, in the midst of all this goodness, destroying the world.
"Of course we're all ignorant by definition. But to brag about it is a perversity."
TPH: Many people who seem to have a contrary nature want to argue that point, saying it's sunspots or you can't say that the temperature fluctuations we've seen over the past 50 years are anything attributable to human beings.
WB: Well, the destruction of the mixed mesophytic forest of the Cumberland plateau by mountain top removal is not the results of sunspots. Pollution of the whole water cycle is not the result of sunspots. Sunspots didn't make acid rain, and they didn't pollute the rivers. And they didn't cause soil erosion. To try to blame it on sunspots is colossal ignorance.
TPH: Well, ignorance seems to be gaining some currency in the culture these days.
WB: Of course we're all ignorant by definition. But to brag about it is a perversity.
TPH: But this ignorance is also being used as the basis of public policy.
WB: That means that people are taking other people's ignorance for granted and then abusing them in their ignorance. If you are a crook, then other people's ignorance or innocence is your stock in trade. It takes the lowest depravity to make a stock in trade of other people's weaknesses.
"Clean green, natural, organic, those are bumper sticker words."
TPH: If I could be so bold, I'd suggest you're talking about a lot of the political class in this country.
WB: There's a difference between the sinner and the sin. We're all complicit in the things we may be trying to oppose. I'm complicit in the things that I'm trying to oppose. In the morning I'm going to get on an airplane and fly to Wyoming. Is what I'm going to do out there worth the expenditure of petroleum and the addition to air pollution that it'll take to get me there? Some day somebody's going to make a judgment about that. It'll be my grandchildren or their children. They're going to make their minds up about me, and I fear their judgment.
TPH: I would think the work you've done over your lifetime: the writing, the lecturing, the political stances you've taken on principle; that they would...
WB: (laughs) ...that that would get me forgiven?
TPH: Well, that your grandchildren would look back and say, "Grandpa was all right."
WB: I'll be lucky if they decide that it comes out even. Listen, we're all petroleum dependent.
TPH: But we didn't choose to have that life, it was thrust upon us.
WB: No, we didn't choose it. But we'll always be subject to the question whether or not we've done enough to stop it. Whether or not we've taken it too much for granted. After all, when I started driving in 1950 nobody had even raised any of these questions. So our fossil fuel addiction was begun in a kind of innocence, but also in a kind of ignorance. And that ignorance has come to a drastic kind of enlightenment by now, so we do have to raise these questions about our own behavior.
TPH: That's sort of the burden of consciousness: the guilty knowledge that while we don't know everything we do know some things yet still persist in our folly. How do we keep asking the question: Can I do better? The culture doesn't seem to foster that kind of introspection and that kind of thoughtfulness.
WB: We're coming up to problems that are going to cause more introspection, I think, and more questioning. The era of cheap energy is over. The minerals, the fuels, the fossil fuels that were easy to recover have been recovered. Now we're drilling holes a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico, and in Pennsylvania and New York and other places we're drilling a mile deep after natural gas. These technological feats are wonderful in a way, but they are also costly and ecologically suspect, dangerous to people and to their places.
TPH: Since our last conversation you were arrested for civil disobedience at the White House.
"The great resource in the Appalachian coal fields is not the coal, it's the forest."
WB: No. The only time I've been arrested was in opposing the Marble Hill nuclear power plant in Indiana. That was in 1979. I did take part in a demonstration in Washington, DC on March 2, 2009. The protest was supposed to involve civil disobedience, and the police were supposed to cooperate. We were to step over a line -- pretty much what we did at Marble Hill. At Marble Hill we climbed over a fence and the busses were waiting to take us down to be booked.
In March, 2009, maybe 3,000 people were there to be arrested, and I was one of them. People asked if I wanted to be arrested, and I said, "Hell No." but I was willing to be. It was a miserable day and a lot of people gave gawdawful long speeches. Finally the police decided that they wouldn't cooperate with us. I think the idea of booking so many people was too much. That's a guess. I don't know what would have happened under different circumstances, but they couldn't have looked upon us as much of a threat to the peace and tranquility of the United States. When they said they wouldn't cooperate, I was, I confess, happy to be unarrested.
TPH: That takes a lot out of a body to put yourself on the line like that. A lot of other people have just sort of given up and are watching TV.
WB: You'd be surprised how many people are willing to be involved. There were a lot of people at an anti-coal demonstration in Louisville on Sept. 28. We've just had enough of the coal companies and their rationalizations and their destructiveness. The great resource in the Appalachian coal fields is not the coal, it's the forest. And the forest with good use could last forever. The coal obviously can't last.
TPH: You pulled your papers from the University of Kentucky.
WB: Yes, I did that. I did it -- I had been at odds with the university over its policies on research among other things. But the reason I finally decided to remove my papers was that, in return for a gift of $7 million to the university from the coal industry, the University agreed to call its new basketball dormitory, Wildcat Coal Lodge.
"We'll always be subject to the question whether or not we've done enough to stop it."
TPH: Part of my question about this centers around your involvement in opposing Marble Hill. You put your principles in action and were successful in stopping that particular ill-considered undertaking ...
WB: The question of our success there is complicated, I think. We did oppose it, and it was stopped. But whether it was stopped because it wasn't economically feasible in the first place is a question we have to leave open. The opposition, though, was strong, and it went on for a long time, and it involved a lot of good and worthy people.
TPH: Now, all these many years later, nuclear power is being touted as some sort of green alternative.
WB: It's not a green alternative, of course. The question of disposal of the waste is still unanswered.
TPH: The half-life of plutonium is, what, forever?
WB: A friend of mine, Carol Rainey, wrote a very good book on the nuclear sites along the Ohio River from Portsmouth to Paducah called One Hundred Miles From Home, and it's a horrifying record. Nuclear science, as everybody hastens always to say, is "elegant science." But in application it results in really terrible messes that are dangerous, as you suggest, for unimaginable lengths of time.
TPH: Clean coal is also a euphemism that's being used, as is the notion that nuclear power is somehow green because it doesn't add CO2 to the atmosphere (at least according to the proponents). That kind of rhetoric has currency in the current cultural debate.
WB: Clean green, natural, organic, those are bumper sticker words. Such words come into vogue and have power only after the failure of actual discourse. So you have one side screaming green and the other side screaming clean. And that is not discourse. We're losing the ability to speak clearly and in good faith and responsibly to each other. It's possible to have a responsible disagreement but that means that both sides have to come into the clear and state their case, fully and in good faith.
"So the right questions are who you're working for and what the work is and whether or not you are in some sense called to do it."
TPH: What has degraded this current public discourse to the level that it is right now, where it's basically people on all fours screaming?
WB: I don't think such intellectual good manners are taught in colleges and universities any more for one thing. For another thing, politicians have degraded it. The speeches of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were painstaking, eloquent and clear. I just don't see that in our politicians any more. I'm saying that at the risk, since I'm an old man now, of talking about "the good old days."
TPH: Well, let's go back to even older days -- my summer reading program was Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he made his living by and large besides writing essays by lecturing.
WB: Yes. Emerson was going around lecturing, and he was making as much sense as he could, as carefully as he could. You may disagree with him, and I think that's quite possible. Henry David Thoreau was doing the same thing, and you can find grounds for disagreeing with him. If you can find grounds to disagree, you should.
But the point that you're making, and that I would second, is that those people were talking carefully to people willing to sit still for an hour or so and listen. I don't think you can dismiss the possibility that they had that kind of attention span because they were, for one thing, used to listening to careful discourse and, for another thing a lot of them were readers who were capable of sitting down with a book and reading for two or three hours at a time. Or maybe even until they finished.
TPH: Do you see yourself in that Emersonian tradition of the Transcendentalists? Early on they were observing what the commercialization of the American culture was doing to the natural world, to women, to the native inhabitants of the continent, and they were raising the alarm. Do you see yourself in that sort of trend of American alternative thought?
WB: I see myself, I suppose, in that lineage of critics. I don't know that I'm down the line a Transcendentalist. I'm probably more conventional and conservative in some ways than the Transcendentalists were. I think I'm part of the Agrarian tradition, and I belong to that inheritance. I belong to the tradition of people who've read the Bible. I have a certain commitment to the Gospels. I am interested in the imperative to be a good neighbor, and I'm really interested in the question of what being a good neighbor might involve. Now when the neighborhood may be polluted by one of your neighbors, or you might be polluting it yourself, those issues are increasingly urgent.
"I think I'm part of the Agrarian tradition, and I belong to that inheritance."
TPH: The Transcendentalists embody a bit of the social gospel; the notion that what we do here on the earth has effects on our neighbors, and we should be mindful of that, and that's how we embody the teachings -- that's my understanding.
WB: Well, there's a lot more individualism among those people. When I was a high school student, Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" really got to me. But it's not just one's self. Thoreau spoke with a very strong sense of individualism, and he needed to. But Thoreau was a young man, he died young. I think now we've grown up in to a kind of knowledge, you can call it ecological knowledge, that says that we are to use the biblical phrasing, "members" of each other. St. Paul used that phrase to mean Christians.
TPH: The members?
WB: Yes. But I would use that language to mean that whether we care to be or not, we're members of each other. The question is whether or not we're willing to act like members. The whole ecosphere is a membership: the air, the soil, the rocks, the water, the living and the non-living, the living and the dead -- all are members one of another. And this is the heavy knowledge that we've got to try to get our minds around and learn to live by.
TPH: A son of a family friend wrote you to ask if there is a future in organic farming, and what can a young man do? You responded to him, and he was so taken by your response he became an apprentice at an organic farm in California.
WB: Well, I've gotten a lot of people in trouble I'm afraid ...
TPH: Do you think it's still a viable way to make a living? I see these people at the farmers markets and see how hard they work -- is it still a viable thing to do?
"The whole ecosphere is a membership: the air, the soil, the rocks, the water, the living and the non-living, the living and the dead -- all are members one of another."
WB: Of course it's a viable thing to do, and it does involve hard work, but the important question is about work and who you're doing it for and whether or not you like to do it. If you're working for yourself, working hard for yourself and your family on a little farm, that's quite a different thing from working hard for a boss or working hard at a job you despise -- which most people seem to do. Why else would they keep saying, "Thank God it's Friday?"
So the right questions are who you're working for and what the work is and whether or not you are in some sense called to do it.
TPH: The calling?
WB: Calling - vocation -- that's another idea that has declined maybe disastrously among us. The decline of the idea of vocation into the idea of "a job" is really a catastrophe in a way. "Vocation" suggests that all of us have some work that we're called to or fitted for. "A job" means some way to earn a living whether we like it or not -- whether we like the work or not -- or even whether the work is damaging to the world or our neighbors or not.
TPH: So based on that, your calling was not only to write poetry and essays and fiction but also to farm with horses and to lecture and practice civil disobedience. Were you called to do all that?
WB: I don't think so. I don't feel much of a vocation about taking a political stand or being involved in a protest -- I just think that's a citizen's duty. So sometimes you do your duty when you'd rather not. I don't like crowds. I don't have much liking or much respect for large crowds making a protest even when they're on my side -- but I've been in number of them, and I think they may be necessary. I feel that's a duty. I don't feel any vocation to be in a crowd or to make speeches to crowds.
TPH: So when you oppose mountaintop removal or you speak out about coal ash ...
WB: I live in the world, and I've begotten children who live in the world, and they've begotten children who live in the world. I've got one married granddaughter and soon will have another. All this is a good thing. It's a good thing, but it exacts certain obligations. If I played my part in bringing those people into this world, then I have a duty to do what I can to see that it's a livable world.
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at